InfoWorld preview: Office 365 beta

In spite of what you may have heard, Microsoft isn't betting the farm on Office 365. But Redmond is certainly sacrificing its largest cash cow to the cloud gods.

With Office 365 available in open beta today, everyone has a chance to see what's new, what's old, and what's in desperate need of improvement. Permit me to point out some of the high spots. I'll also show you how to avoid a few pitfalls I encountered when getting started.

[ Microsoft's Exchange Online, SharePoint Online, and Lync Online combo is good. Is it good enough to cost you your job? See "Will Office 365 get you fired?" | Follow the latest Windows developments in InfoWorld's Technology: Microsoft newsletter. ]

A few pitfalls notwithstanding, the beta itself seems quite stable. I had no problems with any part of the beta using Internet Explorer 9, Firefox 4, or Chrome 10, and I used all of them extensively.

Best of all, Microsoft has done a remarkable job of making Admin functions accessible to people with no Exchange, SharePoint, or Lync experience. Individuals and small companies that have shied away from the big server tools now have a chance to catch up with the large corporate installations, without breaking the bank or seconding an employee to full-time server servitude. That's a notable achievement.

What, exactly, is an Office 365? The best way to explain Office 365 to your boss is that it includes Office 2010, if you want it. But mostly, it includes cloud-based versions of the server glue that ties the Office pieces together: Exchange for email, SharePoint for document collaboration and Team Sites, and Lync for live communications.

For smaller organizations, Office 365 means getting all of those glue-together pieces without running your own servers or hiring network admins because Microsoft provides simplified forms for controlling the glue, as well as providing all of the server oomph your organization needs over the Internet.

There are lots of good things in the glue. For instance, Exchange lets you get at all of your email through the Outlook Web App, so you can move freely back and forth between Outlook on your PC or Mac and Outlook in a browser or on a phone or iPad. Actions you take on one device (such as sending or deleting an email) show up on the others. Exchange also lets you share calendars and contacts. SharePoint supports central document storage and collaboration in Team Sites. It even has a click-and-drag, rudimentary Web page construction application. Lync covers instant messaging, VoIP calling, and videoconferences, and it ties into Outlook and SharePoint Team Sites.

For larger organizations, Office 365 can, at least in theory, off-load some of the work currently performed by your network admins and make it considerably simpler to set up far-flung locations. Even a single location can mix Office 365 and non-Office 365 users. If your company is eyeing Exchange 2010, SharePoint 2010, and Lync 2010, Office 365 makes the deployment simpler. Microsoft guarantees backup, security, and uptime. There's a great deal of debate as to how much of the network admin function should be off-loaded to Microsoft. And the process of moving from in-house servers to Microsoft's servers in the sky promises to be a fertile, lucrative ground for specialized consultants for the next decade or two.

Office 365 also includes the Office Web Apps -- stripped-down versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote -- but those are free to anybody on Windows Live SkyDrive. Microsoft emphasizes the role of Office WebApps in making Exchange email and SharePoint documents accessible on mobile devices, such as Windows Phone, of course, but also iPhone/iPad, Android, and BlackBerry devices. If the document is stored on your company's SharePoint site, editing it by phone isn't as impossible as it sounds.

Office 365 will work with Windows 7, Windows Vista SP2, Windows XP SP3, Mac OS X Leopard, and Mac OS X Snow Leopard, while the Office Web Apps will work with Safari, Firefox, and Chrome, and Internet Explorer. If you've already paid for Office 2007 or 2010 (or Office for Mac 2008 or 2011), you don't need to rent Office 2010 as part of your Office 365 subscription.

Options and pricing structures are varied and complicated, as we've come to expect from Microsoft. For definitive pricing, download Microsoft's official pricing guide and wade through the offerings, which range from $6 per user per month for small companies (1 to 25 users) that already own Office, to $24 per user per month for large companies that want to license Office 2010 as part of the deal. If you have questions about how much it will cost to shift your current Office and server licenses over to Office 365, you aren't alone.

Office is from Mars, Office 365 is from Alpha Centauri If you remember the early days of the Office suite, your experience with Office 365 may feel like déjà vu all over again. Word, Excel, and PowerPoint grew up on three different planets, and it took years and years of cross-fertilization to get to the point where the pieces started acting at least a little bit similarly. Even today, more than 20 years later, there's an enormous number of conceptual differences. Try something as simple as sticking a footer on every printed page of a Word doc, Excel spreadsheet, and PowerPoint presentation. See what I mean? Completely different.

Office 365 attempts the same sort of mash, but this time the goal is even more ambitious. Now we're seeing the same-old, same-old desktop Office apps mashed together with the server pieces that tie them together. The pieces don't hang together very well. The Office apps grew up on different planets, but these server apps grew up on different solar systems. Sometimes trying to execute a simple action requires conceptual leaps among products that are just plain dumb.

An example: I have a Word document that I want to save on the SharePoint Team Site. In Word, I click File, Save and Send, Save to SharePoint, then I double-click on my Team Site. Word shows me a dialog that's very similar to a standard Save As dialog. I type in the name of the file, choose Save As Word Document (*.docx), and click Save. Then I twiddle my thumbs for a minute or two, and finally SharePoint shows me a dialog that says, "The Web server requires you to pick the type of document before it can be saved." I have to tell SharePoint that I'm saving "A blank Microsoft Word document." Sorry, that's just dumb, and it's indicative of the lack of communication that goes on between the Office apps and the server apps.

The fact that I had to tell SharePoint that the .docx file I was uploading was a "Word document" had me wondering which planet I was on.

Working with the Office 365 beta Before you jump into the beta, you need to decide if you're going to try testing Office 365 as a Small Business or as an Enterprise. The primary difference between the two is in your level of familiarity with the server apps. If you've never dabbled with Exchange, SharePoint, or Lync, choose the Small Business option. If the server stuff's old-hat and you're mostly wondering how (and how much) you'll move from your own servers to Microsoft's, go with the Enterprise beta.

Setting up the beta is not difficult, although the sequence is a bit confusing. Here are the steps you should follow for the Small Business beta.

Microsoft sends you a message saying you've been accepted into the beta. You click on the link to go to the sign-up site and fill out a form. That form allows you to set up a new domain name you can use during the beta; for this review I chose Enter a few more details and a password, and the sign-up site whirs for a bit, churns out an email message headed to your email inbox with a Microsoft Online Services user ID and temporary password, and puts you on a page that looks very much like the standard Office 365 portal page.

If you already have Office 2010 installed, the initial sign-up will drop you onto a page similar to this one, which steps you through the beginning Admin activities.

Save yourself some time and bring up the Quick Start Guide, linked in Step 1 under "Start here" in the screen shown above.

In the Quick Start Guide, you find a link to go to the Office 365 sign-in page. When you receive the email with your new Microsoft Online Services user ID and password, go to the sign-in page and enter them. After a forced change of the password, you see a Downloads page.

Before you go off into the Admin activities, get your downloads all set up.

If you don't have Office 2010 Professional Plus installed, the Downloads page will prompt you to choose the 32- or 64-bit version and install it. Remember that the 32-bit version of Office 2010 is the only reliable one.

Next, install the Lync 2010 client. This part's a bit confusing because if you're running a 64-bit version of Windows, you have to select and install the 64-bit version of Lync. As soon as it's installed, you're given a chance to log in to Lync. Go ahead and do so, using your Office 365 beta user ID as the "Sign-in address."

Finally, click the Set Up button at the bottom of the page to download a tool that "configures" the desktop apps. Among other things, you'll get a new Microsoft Office 365 Portal link on your Start menu. When the routine is done, you have to restart your PC, then follow the instructions and head over to Outlook to hook it up to your Office 365 email account.

That's the process every user goes through. You're lucky, though: You're in charge of this exercise, and that makes you an Admin.

Running through the Office 365 Admin setup Once you have the basic Office 365 package set up on your machine, you need to start acting like an Admin.

Every time you use your Admin ID to log in to the Office 365 portal, you see an Admin link at the top, as in Figure 1. Once you have all of your downloads working, click on the Admin link. You're presented with the Admin Overview page.

This is the relatively easy-to-use interface to administering Office 365 users and applications.

At this point you're ready to go exploring, inviting new users to join in the testing and following the instructions in the Introduction for Office 365 Administrators (Enterprise testers look here). But I have a couple of warnings.

Problems with the Office 365 beta I found several parts of the beta confusing.

On the Admin side, the Intro for Office 365 Administrators says, "SharePoint Online permissions and user groups are managed separately from Office 365 settings ... new user accounts that you create in Office 365 are not automatically added to your Team Site's user list. You will need to manually add users to the Team Site, so that you can control who in your company has access to the Team Site." While that may be literally true, it's misleading. By default, any new user that you add via the Add New Users link on the Admin Overview page is automatically allowed read-write access to all of the files in the SharePoint Team Site. That's what you want, at least 90 percent of the time, and you don't have to change anything in the Team Sites section to make it so.

On the client side, I had a lot of trouble getting new users connected to the SharePoint Team Site. Working in Word 2010, for example, there isn't any easy way to navigate to the Team Site; when I click on File, Save and Send, Send to SharePoint, the Team Site doesn't initially appear. When I then double-click on Browse for a Location, I'm unceremoniously dumped into the Save As dialog box, without a clue where to go. Clicking on File/Open doesn't bring up the Team Site either, at least at first. Even though my SharePoint Team Site appeared on the Windows 7 Network list -- was there, along with all of my networked PCs -- I couldn't navigate in or around it.

I discovered a trick, strictly by trial and error. For newly installed users, I went to the Office 365 portal, and from there clicked to the Team Site. I clicked on one of the documents in the Team Site, and clicked Edit. That opened the doc inside the Word Web App. In the upper-left corner, I clicked Open in Word. Word dutifully fired up with the document inside, and voilà: Suddenly I could save the file -- or any other Word doc -- to the Team Site. Open started working, too.

I figure that's one of those Word-is-from-Venus, SharePoint-is-from-Alpha-Centauri problems.

There are lots of navigational problems, too. For example, from the SharePoint Administration Center, there are no links to get out of SharePoint. If you find yourself chasing down that Admin rabbit hole, the only way back out is the browser's Back button.

Other problems I had are inherent with the products themselves.

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